New Land Trust seeks to protect scenic Missouri, farming and space near Katy Trail
This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, April 26, 2010 - The old golf cart chugs up a dirt road, over tall grass, up and down hills, past rows of grape vines and bales of hay, and stops among the cows.
"Hey, Connie, tell her what we call this particular area here," Dan Burkhardt says to his wife, sitting in the back seat.
"This is happy hour hill."
All around the St. Louis couple, their 220 acres roll out in a vision of green hills, a small farm pond, trees and cows and miniature horses. The white farm house at the bottom of the hill is original, built by the first owners 105 years ago.
The Burkhardts bought the farm just north of the Katy Trail near Marthasville 15 years ago and come whenever they can. Here, they find quiet, space, work to be done and nothing but the Missouri landscape to see.
They plan on keeping things that way, too.
The Burkhardts' farm is the first to join the Katy Land Trust, which they helped start to honor the legacy of their friend and business partner Ted Jones, who along with his wife, Pat, were the moving forces behind the creation of the Katy Trail 20 years ago this month.
Each year, the trail brings thousands of visitors through the corridor that runs across the state, following the old rail lines, passing through small towns that thrive with wineries, B&Bs and bike shops.
With the land trust, the Burkhardts hope to preserve private land around the Katy Trail so that the views they have today from atop happy hour hill, and from many spots along the trail, remain as they are.
Their first job, however, is telling people what land trusts really are.
SO WHAT IS A LAND TRUST?
Across the country, 37 million acres of land are protected, according to the Land Trust Alliance, with 23,000 conservation easements over 6 million acres.
The Burkhardts were inspired by the Marin Agriculture Land Trust outside San Francisco, which was the first in the country to focus specifically on farmland preservation. To date, it has preserved 41,600 acres from development.
"It's a beautiful, striking natural area, and they've gotten support from people who live in San Francisco to help preserve this farmland because people see it as a real resource," Dan Burkhardt says. "We just thought, people in St. Louis love the Katy Trail, they love coming out to this area to get some peace and quiet and solitude, they love the back roads. It's a lot like Marin County is to San Francisco, so why can't we do the same thing here?"
Last year, Burkhardt got connected with the Ozarks Regional Land Trust, a 25-year-old nonprofit that stretches through Missouri into Arkansas and Oklahoma. ORLT is the parent organization of the Katy Land Trust.
But what is a land trust?
"The most important myth to dispel No. 1 is that somehow we are taking the land or are related to the government or both, and both of those things are false," says Mark Patrick, program coordinator of KLT.
The second myth, he says, is that land trusts use eminent domain.
Also not true.
Instead, a land trust is voluntary, and in the case of a conservation easement, the owner of the land retains the property, the right to sell it and leave it to their children, unless they choose to donate the land to the land trust. What they've legally agreed to, however, is not to develop the land past certain bounds. Those bounds are decided between the trust and the landowner.
"I can leave the land to my kids," Burkhardt says, "I can sell the land next week. I can do anything I would ordinarily do except build a home on the land that's protected or develop it."
In the Burkhardts' case, for example, 200 of their 220 acres are in the land trust. If they want to build on the other 20 acres, they can.
But the land won't be sold and divided up into small lots as it almost was before the Burkhardts bought it.
"The thought of someone moving in there at some future date and dividing it up into three-acre lots is something I just couldn't stand," he says.
"Land trusts are community-based nonprofit environmental organizations," says Erin Heskett, midwest program director of the Land Trust Alliance, a trade association for 1,700 land trusts.
Sometimes, they're all volunteer; sometimes, they have huge budgets and staffs, with the oldest being the trustees of reservations dating back to the 1870s.
The benefits of land trusts are many, Heskett says, from aesthetic to environmental to community and economic.
"If you protect a property, it can be good for the environment, it can be good for farmers to keep that land productive, and it also can be good for the economy," Patrick agrees. That's true for tourism, community integrity, and also tax benefits for the land owner.
Those tax benefits do exist, but a bill passed in 2006 with greater tax benefits has currently expired and is awaiting extension, Heskett says.
There are some costs, however.
First, when a landowner signs up for a conservation easement, they lose the short-term gain they could have realized if they'd sold the land to a developer.
With KLT and ORLT, a trust is not free either.
Using a formula that looks at the land and takes into account the need to monitor it annually and have money in a legal defense fund, Patrick says setting up a land trust can cost land owners between $5,000 and $15,000. But if a land owner can't pay that, he says, donors can often be found to help cover the costs. He also recommends landowners use their own lawyers to go over all the paperwork.
After years in the land trust world, Patrick has found that people who participate in them do so for many reasons, from environmental to economic. But the underlying reason tends to be a fierce belief that the land should remain as it is.
"That should be the first desire," he says.
There are other desires out there, too, though, and that can mean trust violations down the road, either from a family member who's come into possession or a new owner. Those violations may lead to lawsuits or mediation, and that can be expensive.
Right now, the Land Trust Alliance is working on a safety net for member organizations to help provide funds should breaches happen.
And while the Katy Land Trust seeks to protect land around the Katy Trail, it could have an impact on business along the trail, too.
"I'm all for the preservation along there," says Todd White, who owns Katy Bike Rental and Robin's Nest on the Katy Trail in Defiance. But if he and his wife, Robin, were approached to participate, White says he isn't sure what he'd do because some rights are given up.
"There's some downsides, too," he says.
However, the land trust could prevent encroachment from the St. Louis area, though that's not something he's too worried about. In fact, because of flood plains, many towns that once sat on the Katy no longer exist. White worries more about the opposite of too much development, and that is not enough.
Matt Starnes, with retail sales and marketing at Augusta Winery, says he thinks the land trust is a great idea. In fact, he says, "I thought that was something that had already been done."
Twenty years ago, the Katy Trail opened across Missouri, and today, it's bigger and better than even the most visionary people expected at the time, says Bill Bryan, director of the division of state parks with the Department of Natural Resources.
All of the things that people feared, like city dwellers polluting and trespassing, never happened. Instead, small communities have invited the visitors in for a bit, and families have a place to be together, to reconnect with nature and be healthy.
"I think it's been remarkable," says Pat Jones.
Her late husband, Ted, who was concerned for small towns along the rail lines that lost the railroad and were fading away, got the idea for the Katy Trail after seeing a rails-to-trails project in Wisconsin. She says, "He thought, if Wisconsin can do it, why can't Missouri?"
"When (Ted) first got onto this idea in the mid-'80s, it wasn't obvious to everyone right away that the old railroad line was going to become one of the most used and loved state parks in the state," Burkhardt says. "We watched him put it together and we've always wanted to do something in a very small way to commemorate his efforts and to make the trail better."
Today, Jones thinks her late husband would approve of the Katy Land Trust.
"I think he'd think it was a good idea," she says.
"I think it's a great idea," Bryan agrees. Preserved land has inestimable value, he says. "We don't want to have a bunch of billboards. We don't want to have inappropriate development."
The Katy Land Trust currently only has one farm, the Burkhardts', but plans to send out informational mailings early next month and approaching landowners from St. Charles through Rocheport along the Katy Trail. The Burkhardts plan on being vocal parts of that campaign.
Back at their farm, Dan Burkhardt starts up the golf cart again and heads down happy hour hill and up into another field of cows. He stops for a moment to cut thick, thorny locust bushes, then lets out two miniature horses before stopping by the chicken coops so his wife can collect eggs.
Work here never ends. And thanks to the conservation easement, that should be true just about forever.